Special counsel Robert Mueller has focused attention on payment for a short speech President Donald Trump delivered at the request of a Ukrainian steel magnate during his presidential campaign, according to The New York Times.
Investigators subpoenaed the Trump Organization this year for an array of records about business with foreign nationals. In response, the company handed over documents about a $150,000 donation that the Ukrainian billionaire, Victor Pinchuk, made in September 2015 to the Donald J. Trump Foundation in exchange for a 20-minute appearance by Mr. Trump that month through a video link to a conference in Kiev.
The Times notes that the subpoena is an indicator that Mueller is interested in Trump’s foreign dealings beyond the scope of Russia.
The payment from Mr. Pinchuk “is curious because it comes during a campaign and is from a foreigner and looks like an effort to buy influence,” said Marcus S. Owens, a former head of the Internal Revenue Service division that oversees tax-exempt organizations. He called the donation “an unusual amount of money for such a short speech.”
Mr. Pinchuk is the son-in-law of a former president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, who from 1994 to 2005 led a government criticized for corruption, nepotism and the murder of dissident journalists. Mr. Pinchuk, who has been accused by steel makers in the United States of illegally dumping steel on the American market at artificially low prices, drew more scrutiny during the campaign for his ties to Hillary Clinton and her family foundation. He has donated more than $13 million to that organization since 2006.
The invitation for Trump to speak came while there were still numerous candidates vying for the Republican nomination, according to the Donald J. Trump Foundation, and at that time "it was by no means assured that Mr. Trump would be the Republican nominee."
Mr. Trump’s appearance was broadcast at the Yalta European Strategy conference, which promotes pro-European Union policies for Ukraine. Through his own foundation, Mr. Pinchuk sponsors the affair, which typically attracts well-known former Western leaders like former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and former President Bill Clinton. It was moved to Kiev after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
It was not Trump who proposed remuneration for the speech but his attorney Michael Cohen -- whose properties were searched by authorities in an unrelated case on Monday.
Cohen reached out to Doug Schoen, a veteran political consultant, pollster, and Pinchuk associate who set up the speech.
Mr. Trump did not raise the prospect of any payment. But the next day, Mr. Cohen called Mr. Schoen to solicit the $150,000 as an honorarium, the person briefed on the matter said. Mr. Schoen, who had gotten to know Mr. Cohen by running into him in the green room at Fox News, dealt with him and not Mr. Trump directly, according to another person briefed on the exchange.
Trump indicated previously that Mueller should take care not to venture too far from the Russian aspect of his investigation but as yet has not commented on the special counsel’s inquiry regarding this campaign speech.
This is not the first time the president's foundation has raised red flags regarding potential improprieties.
Mr. Trump’s foundation attracted scrutiny during the 2016 campaign over revelations about his lack of financial support for it and his use of it to pay legal settlements rather than fulfill pledges he made to give to charity. In 2007, Mr. Trump used $20,000 from the foundation to buy a six-foot-tall portrait of himself.
Two weeks after he was elected president, the foundation acknowledged in a tax form that it might have broken federal rules designed to prohibit self-dealing, when charities use their money to benefit principals in their organization.
It was that same filing which revealed that Pinchuk had paid $150,000 for Trump's speech.